II. Marcel Tabuteau on Oboe Pedagogy

by Charles David Lehrer

Whereas my previous article focused on Tabuteau’s oboes and reeds, Part II explores his teaching as it relates to the physical aspects of playing. The musicians listed below talk about embouchure, position of the instrument and fingers, and other such topics as taught by Marcel Tabuteau in oboe lessons. These entries were derived from materials presented elsewhere in their entirety on this website.

AG: Adrian Gnam

DB: Donald Baker

JD: John de Lancie

JM: John Minsker

JR: Joseph Robinson

LS: Laila Storch

MS: Melissa Stevens

MT: Marcel Tabuteau

RF: Rowland Floyd





Marcel Tabuteau in 1950 at Preades with John Mack to his left and Laila Storch to his right.

DB: Taught [tight] all around.

DB: Indentation of the jaw: tight there.

DB: Lips relaxed and flexible. A little flatter than I would have thought.

AG: Adjust with the change of notes. Use the syllable ‘Oh’ not ‘Ah.’

MT: Never blow into the reed! Blow against your nose; feel the pressure in back of your nose; the reed will work by itself. The pressure of the wind gives inflection.

MT: Embouchure: Maintain it very tightly on level 1, but use less-and-less embouchure pressure on each higher level.

MT: The following is an exercise to test the range of the instrument and to test the reed, tongued and slurred:

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RF: Tabuteau advised me to play on a reed by itself, or in tube of cane to ‘save’ the neighbors when practicing [see below].

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MT: Practice on the reed alone, and then insert it into a piece of cane. Play chromatically using levels 1 to 5 to 1. Before playing, try the reed in the embouchure alone. The reed should be further into the mouth for high notes and further out of the mouth for the lowest notes.

RF: I noticed that Tabuteau had a crease, a red mark on his lower lip after playing, which was ¾ of an inch long where his reed impressed his lip by turning it slightly to the left.

MT: Don’t puff out your cheeks; imitate me.

MT: Take more reed in your mouth, and turn, roll, and twist your reed in the oboe to the left as does a bassoonist because it lets the reed vibrate more.

MT: Take more reed in the mouth when playing low notes and loud notes. For these, you need more vibration of the reed.

MT: Think ‘O’ on a low attack, not ‘E’ like a crocodile. Then you are cooked!

JM: He started off with long tones and he would ask you to whistle to form your embouchure. The idea was to avoid the stretching so that the corners of your month were closer together. This naturally gave you more cushion in the center. If you want to play pp, you play on the tip of the reed, and gradually as you expand that tone, you can take more reed.

Position of the Instrument and Fingers

MT: Keep all fingers above the keys in playing position.

MT: Keep your fingers curved, especially your right-hand fingers.

MT: Hammer with the fingers when playing the oboe; like a pianist, curve your fingers, do not hold them out flat.

MT: Keep the reed covered by holding the oboe lower and back against your lower lip.

RF: Tabuteau directed me to draw my lower lip more over my lower teeth and lay the reed against my lower lip. He showed how Robert Bloom went to an extreme since he held the oboe almost flat against his chest.

MT: Hold the oboe down and keep the head up.

MT: Don’t hold the oboe out at such a straight angle. RF: Tabuteau demonstrated, showing how uncontrolled and wild the sound is — actually barbaric.

MT: Look straight ahead at me, the conductor; don’t look at the ground.

MT: Hold the oboe straight, not to side of the mouth as flute player.


MT: Use a mirror to check against a cheek or cheeks puffing out. Also, check to see that the oboe remains straight down, not to the right side. Check to see that the embouchure is flexible: up-and-down with the range of the instrument; in other words, in-and-out of the mouth by degrees.

MT: Find the correct place on the reed. That is, each reed, however less than perfect it might be, has a right place for each note of the scale. This has to do with putting more or less of the reed into the mouth in a flexible manner.

[Note Ralph Gomberg’s solution: Use left-hand pressure to cause the reed to go further into the mouth.]


MT: Also use a mirror to see that when tonguing, especially when attacking each note of a scale, that this is done on the wind and not separately. Maintain the air pressure at all times, and in tonguing, no exterior movement should be seen. Check incidentally to see that you are sitting up straight with your feet on the floor to insure proper support. If individual movements in the throat can be seen, this means that the air pressure starts and stops on each note during tonguing. This is wrong.

MT: There should be no stupid excess bodily movements.

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Tabuteau backstage, holding his instrument close to his body.


Tabuteau standing and holding the oboe well away from his torso.

Tabuteau on Tone, Wind Pressure, and Breath Control

MT: The tone must start from dark, and then can be allowed to get brighter from there.

JM: He always stressed a dark sound, and he had the most beautiful dark sound of anything you can imagine. It was such a dark quality but light weight. Many students misunderstood that, and as a result, they got a dark sound which was thick and heavy. It wasn’t light like Tabuteau’s sound.

MT: A big tone comes from a small one.

MT: A big tone is only a dolce tone enlarged. The dolce tone is the one nearest to number one.

MT: On the violin, the area from the finger board to the bridge constitutes color change as follows: 1-25-1. On the oboe, push the reed into the mouth further as you ‘reach the bridge’ in order to change the color of the sound.

MT: Prepare the wind pressure. The device of saying ‘Ahh…’ prior to playing is intended for this purpose. Compare this to the fact that pressure exists in a water faucet before one turns it on.

MT: Say ‘aaah’ and sustain this, then abruptly close your mouth with the pressure and support still there. Only then should you begin to play.

MT: The speed of wind must be sharp as a razor.

RF: Tabuteau told me to direct the air at my nose.

MT: Feel the pressure behind the nose; this helps in keeping one’s throat open.

RF: Tabuteau  said Lifschey was extreme in the amount and direction of the air he aimed at his nose [upper palette] resulting in noise.

MT: Feel the pressure of the air behind your nose, release the air through your nose if necessary.

MT: Just as when you whistle, three times more wind speed is required in preparation to play the octave (third octave) on the oboe.

MT: Don’t let the pitch or the support fall; keep the pressure up, keep the direction up.

MT: Remember to articulate the wind.

JR: The “X Diagram”—described in that way—is from John Mack, who told me it was “bedrock production theory during everyone’s first year at Curtis.”

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MS: Did he ever discuss breathing with you?

JM: Yes, every facet of your playing was discussed. He used to say that he would blow against a candle to just barely keep it from extinguishing. He did stress the use of the candle, although I have to confess I never did it.

He did mention the fact that you always had too much wind and should try to get rid of it though your nose while playing.

Lessons and Practicing

MS: Can you describe a typical private lesson with Tabuteau?

JM: Well, I would say there’s no such thing as a typical lesson with him. Things could go smoothly occasionally, and he could blow up on occasion. He would always start you out with a long tone. That was the basis of your playing.

JM: Then you would play scales in a few different keys, maybe scales in thirds in different keys. Then you played your lesson from Barret or Ferling and transposed in into a nearby key. If you got through alive you left.


MS: Can you describe a typical private lesson with Tabuteau?

JD: We always started with long tones, scales, and broken thirds. Then we had to play our lessons, which generally consisted of four exercises [from Barret, Ferling, or Brod]. Two would be new pieces in the original key. The other two would be pieces we played the previous week in the original key, now transposed to a different key.


MT: When playing scales, for sake of practice and to meet physical demands musically, breathe after every 9th note.

MT: Begin increasing the velocity of your scales every two weeks, eventually reaching mm = 120 and playing them as follows: detached, slurred, and articulated.

MT: Play scales and articulations every day, 30 to 45 minutes each. It takes a lifetime.

LS: He lays great importance on the “Grand Studies” Nos. 3, 12, 15 and 16 in Barret.

MT: My suggestions for a division of practice time: Play exercises for embouchure and wind for a half hour. Then forty-five minutes on studies, forty-five minutes on solos to develop style. Practice scales and thirds—staccato and legato. Practice Gillet Studies sometimes for the acrobatic embouchure. Play them slowly and always with line and purpose. Practice in front of a mirror. Make it look easy.

MT: I practice every day.